Anadromous sea lampreys are ecosystem engineers

In a new paper by Robert Hogg et al entitled ‘Anadromous sea lampreys (Petromyzon marinus) are ecosystem engineers in a spawning tributary’ it is shown how sea lampreys disturb the substratum during nest construction and alter the physical habitat, potentially affecting other stream organisms positively. The results of this study suggest that spawning sea lampreys are ecosystem engineers. The authors found that physical disturbance caused by sea lamprey nest-building activity was significant and persistent, increasing habitat heterogeneity and favouring pollution-sensitive benthic invertebrates and, possibly, drift-feeding fish.

Anadromous sea lampreys are ecosystem engineers
Anadromous sea lampreys are ecosystem engineers

It is clear that the nesting behaviours of sea lampreys result in the creation of habitat patches with reduced fine-sediment coverage, decreased gravel and cobble embeddedness, improved interstitial spacing, increased intragravel permeability, and enhanced depth and velocity heterogeneity relative to neighbouring unmodified patches. Nest building by sea lampreys produces a suite of positive physical effects that can persist for months after completion.

The study was undertaken in a tribuary of the Penobscot River, Maine, USA. The authors note that the study was performed where there was a modest run of sea lampreys, with access to spawning habitat only recently restored. They concluded therefore that “the scale of this reported influence, therefore, is a fraction of the potential ecological impact that larger populations of sea lampreys may formerly have delivered to habitats throughout their native range“.

The abstract and access to the Hogg et al (2014) paper can be found at the link below:-

It is always nice to see a positive paper about sea lampreys from the other side of the Atlantic. Sea lampreys are native to Maine and the Atlantic coast of the USA. Indeed there are native populations of sea lampreys in US Atlantic coast rivers extending from Labrador to Gulf of Mexico. Unlike their Great lake cousins, native North American sea lamprey populations are of significant conservation importance. As with native European populations,  native North American sea lampreys populations have not just suffered undeserved bad publicity as a result of the non-native sea lamprey invasion of the Great lakes; they have also suffered due to anthropogenic impacts such as river engineering, dam construction and pollution.

There is a growing body of evidence which suggests that sea lamprey may be one of the most important and beneficial native residents of coastal river systems

The sea lamprey problem in the Great Lakes resulted from the decision to build the Welland Canal (a large shipping canal constructed between Lake Ontario and Lake Erie to bypass Niagara Falls) while ignoring the risk of allowing access by fish species to the Great Lakes that had never existed there before. The effects of the sea lamprey invasion of the Great lakes has lead to a misunderstanding and undeserved bad reputation for sea lampreys in their native North American range, and indeed as far away as Europe.  There is a growing body of evidence which suggests that sea lamprey may be one of the most important and beneficial native residents of coastal river systems, and this new paper from Hogg et al (2014) illustrates some the benefits that native sea lamprey populations can bring to rivers.

For further information on lampreys please do not hesitate to contact us.

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